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Richard Wilbur's Precept

DURING THE LONG and taxing business of preparing the text of my Poetry Notebook for publication, I deliberately did not look at the great American poet Richard Wilbur’s book of critical prose, which I have been reading, off and on, ever since it came out in 1976. I was too afraid of echoing his tone, and of seeming servile if I did so. But I couldn’t fail to remember his knack for laying out his knowledge in an easy-seeming sweep of conversational English. (How did literary theory get started? Because the theorists couldn’t write.) Several of my touchstone poets—Larkin, Auden, and Eliot would be other examples—had the gift of talking with a passionate detachment about the art they practised, but I always thought that Wilbur was the kingpin. Now I can safely read his prose again; and find that his chapter “Poetry’s Debt to Poetry” still strikes me as the ideal lesson, for beginning students, in how to think about the way the poetic heritage is handed down through the generations. Without a conscious display of erudition, but with a wealth of solid knowledge learned by heart, he gives you the sense that all the poets who have ever mattered always knew about any poet who mattered before them, even if they did not approve. (If the question had been raised of how Dante could have made Homer king of all the poets without being able to read him, Wilbur would have had the answer: Dante could not read Homer, but he trusted Virgil’s opinion.) It was in this essay that Wilbur crystallized the formulation that has stayed with me so usefully ever since: in poetry, all the revolutions are palace revolutions.

That being said, ignorance can have, within strict limits, a creative power of its own. With all my critical writing about poetry done and dusted, I really didn’t want to discover any new poets, so I was almost glad to know nothing about Richard Howard. But only almost. Having now discovered him—through his rich collection Inner Voices—I am impressed by his long lifetime of work in verse. Born in 1929, he has ten years on me and has always used his time to lyrical and learned effect, even when writing criticism; so how can I, of all people, have not known he was there? Like the leading pair of my other formalist Americans, Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht, he has the gift of working a mind-ful of memories and impressions into an apprehensible shape.

Had I encountered Richard Howard early on, I might even have been affected in my own poetry by the sheer delight he takes in spreading his erudition through a stanza. To take only one example, his poem “Venetian Interior, 1889,” might be subtitled “All you need to know about what happened to Robert Browning’s son.” It is a sumptuous piece of work, a boutique with the range of a supermarket. But it also runs on. Brevity is not in his gift, or anyway not among his interests: he presumes his readers have the time. In my own work I have always assumed that the readers have no time at all, and need their attention snared from moment to moment, even when I am translating the Divine Comedy. But on that point, reassurance comes from Dante himself: in the Inferno he always has a new event waiting around every corner, and in his Paradiso there is another light show every ten minutes. Still, Richard Howard’s relaxed approach has its virtues.

Above all, he has a better reason for writing than merely to be recognized. In that regard, it would be conceited on my part to think that he ever needed my approval. Such a conceit is a déformation professionnelle for critics: after an initial period of relative sanity, they tend to think that nothing—not even the career of, say, Horace—ever happened without their interest in it. At its worst, the madness reaches the point where the critic behaves as if his new book about Shakespeare will save Shakespeare from oblivion. One way of praising Richard Howard would be to say that his mentality is the exact opposite: the note of nonpossessive appreciation is one that he strikes with every sentence he writes, and when it shows up in a poem it has a bewitching effect, even when the poem is ten times longer than the complete works of Samuel Menashe.

So, come to think of it, I am doubly glad that I didn’t find Richard Howard earlier, but found him only now, when the pleasure of discovery can no longer pose any difficult choices. Wilbur might have added one further thought to his famous precept: all the revolutions are palace revolutions, but there is the occasional klutz who never figures out what’s going on until it’s all over.

And goddam it, I have just found another accomplished and erudite American poet, in the books section of the Oxfam shop near Magdalene bridge: Lawrence Joseph. His collection Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos is full of quotable lines. I deduce from his Wikipedia entry (his book’s biographical note is coy about this information, as if he were a female film star) that he was born nine years after me, so where have I been all his life? And Stephen Edgar, in a letter, has only just now mentioned the name of the late Edgar Bowers, who turns out to have been an American formalist poet who not only came out of World War II like Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht but wrote poems intricate and precise enough to be considered along with theirs. I’m supposed to rest content with a comprehensive viewpoint marinated in experience, not to be jolted out of my bed-socks every five minutes by the belated discovery of someone who has been toiling away impeccably for decades writing exactly the sort of thing I have so often proclaimed indispensable. Further evidence, here, for a bittersweet truth: any overview of the cultural world, like any system of mathematics, can’t be complete without being false. We can legitimately preen ourselves on being brighter than the next literary critic down the corridor, but we had better not imagine that we are brighter than Gödel. But I must put Lawrence Joseph aside, because I have a new poem on the way, and it is always fatal, I have found, when you have something of your own to write, to get too close to someone else’s music. It gets into your lungs like secondary smoking.